In many sports, the practice is almost as enjoyable as the competition. Golf, for instance. Tennis, cross country, basketball, baseball. Not so with football. Practice is tough, and this has been a tough week for Alabama football players.
Alabama’s football team goes to Bryant-Denny Stadium Saturday for a scrimmage that will mark the end of fall camp. It will also mark two weeks until the kickoff of the season when the Crimson Tide meets the Michigan Wolverines in the Cowboys Classic on Sept. 1 in Arlington, Texas.
In this final week of camp, Alabama Coach Nick Saban said, “The focus is on improvement.
“Every day we are trying to expose our players to some different game-like situation that they need to be able to understand and manage, because you never know when these situations are going to come up. Whether it's four-minute at the end of the game where you've got to get first downs to take the air out of the ball so the other team doesn't get the ball back. Going two-minute and finishing what you need to do, whether you need to make a field goal at the end of the game to win it or whatever it is. Two-minute before the half.
“Every situation that we can possibly think of, we want to try to cover so that our players understand in that situation what we want to do and what we want to do.”
Looking ahead, Saban had roughly the same message.
“The biggest thing that I think we’re focused on for this Saturday is how much do we improve as a team.”
Saban said he knows that the players “are probably tired of the camp.”
Camp, of course, is part of the process. Every Saban team reflects what he is giving players.
“What's inside of you relative to what you do, how you finish, the kind of attitude you have, the kind of character you compete with,” he said. “All those things versus what's outside of you, which is things that can distract you -- how hot it is, all that stuff. Because you control how you think.
“I think it's really important that we have enough mental toughness on our team, that we have enough maturity on our team, that our players think the right way, and that we have enough players that think the right way so that they can finish in critical situations in the game.
“They can not make errors, whether it's illegal procedure in a two-minute drive that kills you, or a defensive player jumping offsides in a two-minute that gives them a first down and gives them more opportunities.
“Those are the kinds of things that we're trying to zero in on right now. As well as working on some of our opponents who create problems that we don't basically see in practice.”
A component of fall camp is that Alabama has no more than 85 scholarshipped players and 105 total players. Obviously, at least 20 of the practice players are walk-ons. Saban said a number have caught his eye, including two who have been an important part of Crimson Tide special teams.
“Carson Tinker does a great job on his snapping,” Saban said of one of Alabama’s best known players. “He's been a great representative of the team.” He also named Kelly Johnson, a back-up tight end and snapper who has played on various special teams in coverage and returns, and said senior wide receiver Nathan McAllister “does a really good job.” He said all three “have a chance to compete in some role on the ream.”
Saban added, “I think we have some really good young guys that came in this year and have shown that they have some ability, which is going to add to our ability down the road in terms of our preparation for games.”
Wide receiver is a position where Alabama lost its two starters from 2011, Marquis Maze and Darius Hanks. It’s also a spot where young players and walk-ons have traditionally had a chance to play. “We’ve got some young guys that can maybe add some depth there, too,” the coach said.
Saban discussed wide receiver play during camp, naming a handful of those being counted on and issuing, perhaps, a bit of caution regarding one who has widely been considered a likely starter.
“Kevin Norwood has really had a great camp,” Saban said. “He had a great spring. He’s probably the guy that’s really matured into the type of leader that you like having on your team.
“Christion Jones has done a nice job. DeAndrew White has done a nice job. Amari Cooper's done a nice job as a young guy and I think those guys have encouraged him and helped him.
“Kenny Bell has had some nagging sort of things that have been difficult for him to deal with in camp. We're hopeful that he'll be a player that will make a significant impact for us.”